Eugene McCarthy: We didn’t have any kind of formal links with [the anti-war movement] – you know, they were kind of doing their own thing. In fact, some of them were a little upset when we started the campaign saying we were draining off energy; they were more radical. And they weren’t harmful, but they weren’t much help to us. So … I wouldn’t say we distanced ourselves from them: we just sort of let them do their own act.”

Interview with Senator Eugene McCarthy (1996)

Harvey MilkI stood for more than just a candidate .… I have never considered myself a candidate.  I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy.  I’ve considered the movement the candidate …. Almost everything that was done was done with an eye on the gay movement.

“Harvey Milk’s Political Will” in Randy Shilts, the Mayor of Castro Street (1982).

The theory behind keeping candidates from coordinating with “outside group” issue advocacy is that the candidates have to account for the benefits they receive from associating with their allies. If the groups spend money on issues also identified with the candidates, then the candidates are getting “contributions” that must be tracked and limited—or prohibited, as in the case of corporate contributions.

Of course, much of the energy behind this demand for strict limits on “coordination” is derived from suspicion of the ads: the belief that they are shams, adding nothing to the debate and merely transferring media expenses from the candidates to the supporters.  But the  arguments to regulate this advertising go farther, as now evident in the Wisconsin legal controversy over the Walker recall election.  The complaint is not only about ads that name and either praise or condemn candidates, or contain some other obvious electioneering language or imagery. It extends to ads that carry none of that content, but that take up a cause a candidate shares, in coordination with the candidate. The circle of suspects at risk of illegal coordination is all-inclusive: established gay or women’s rights organizations, or labor unions, as well as fly-by-nights with names like Citizens for a Just World and Americans against Evil.

Progressives committed to campaign finance reform, conditioned to worry about “issue advertising,” have reason to be torn between two reactions to this development. They want to control the effects of money on politics and they worry about the wear-and-tear on the campaign finance laws.  Their interest lies also in melding campaigns with issues movements, to support coalitions that advance progressive politics through effective alliances between all working parts: issues groups, activists, candidates and parties.   Do they want their narrative to read like Eugene McCarthy’s, or like Harvey Milk’s?

In a “rethinking” of past movements like the antiwar movement of the sixties,  the separation of the issues groups from the candidates has come to be described as a “serious weakness.”  Simon Hall, Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement (2012) at 11.  In that time, the barrier was not legal, as it is today, but ideological: groups stoutly opposed to the war rejected conventional politics as a path to end it. Activists who straddled both sides of the line—most famously, Allard Lowenstein—argued for a “mainstream political approach” that would bring the “friendlies” into the business of finding compatible candidates and supporting them. William H. Chafe, Never Stop Running (1993) at 266-67.

The harm flowing from the wall between movement and electoral politics was not confined to situations where a particular issue was dominant—as in Harvey Milk’s political career or the anti-war politics within the Democratic Party.  The problem is a profound one at the core of progressive strategy.  Once he became active in electoral politics, Tom Hayden could express it this way, in an essay written in the mid-70’s:

We want to break down the separation that is traditional in American life between ‘conventional’ electoral politics and the ‘unconventional’ politics of the picket line, the protest rally, the boycott and the strike.  We think all these forms of action are vital to the process of democratic action, and should be seen as mutually supportive, rather than mutually exclusive.

“Make the Future Ours,” Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (2008) at 187.

Breaking down this separation of electoral and other politics depends on various factors. Certainly there has to be a commitment to it on the part of candidate and group—a commitment missing in the anti-war movement, and very much alive in the gay rights politics of Milk’s San Francisco.  But in contemporary campaign finance, this strategy is also confronted with a legal challenge: that meshing electoral and issue politics may be illegal “coordination.”

The importance of this issue for progressive politics is brought out by a simple but hardly fanciful hypothetical:

In the 2016 presidential campaign argument about women’s issues such as access to reproductive health services, an established women’s rights organizations decides on a major network, cable and radio advertising campaign. It will argue for the need to protect women’s control of their health care from the interference of politicians and employers.  There will be no mention of candidates or elections, no images from the campaign trail, and no republication or echoing of campaign slogans or messaging.

The organization would like to review both the content and schedule for the ads with selected allies, including the campaign staff of the candidate it supports as most reliable on the issue.  It is interested in having the best advice on an effective casting of the message. Also, the ad sponsor would like to have the campaign and other allies cooperate in the “roll out” of the ads by clearing their press calendars of any conflicting or distracting communications initiatives and issuing statements or holding press events that reinforce the message once the ads are running.

Alter the hypothetical to make it about civil liberties or the minimum wage or health care and the question for progressives is the same: should this be Illegal, or is it good politics that deserves protection—even encouragement?

Category: Coordination

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